Sebastian Barry is Ireland’s version of the great American novelist. In his literary output and in person, he is larger than life: loquacious, with great hair but also with a sense of being slightly haunted. What he’s haunted by, we discover in Sebastian Barry: Family Stories (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm), are the things that haunt all of Ireland. Traumas passed down through the generations, familial dysfunction, festering secrets.
“He destroyed everything,” Barry says of a father who drank too much and apparently regarded philandering as his mission in life. Barry’s mother, Joan O’Hara, who was well known from her role in the RTÉ soap opera Fair City but also frequently acted at the Abbey and other theatres – was “fettered” by her own self-absorption. Tangled up in his childhood visits to O’Hara’s native Sligo town were second-hand memories of the violence and emotional neglect that had been part of her upbringing. “It was so pitch,” he says of Sligo. “It was like tar on her shoes.”
Family Stories tells us a lot about Barry as a person. It traces his hell-raising days at Trinity College Dublin, where he seemed to suffer from undiagnosed depression, and his early relationship with his wife, the screenwriter Alison Deegan, which plays out like the lyrics to a Smiths song. (He still owes her the fiver he cadged from her during a first date at Bewley’s.)
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Where it perhaps falls down is in making the case for Barry’s importance as a writer. The success of his play The Steward of Christendom is identified as a key point in both his life and his career. But the film doesn’t dwell on the many literary awards he has won – and those he hasn’t (including the Booker, for which he has been twice shortlisted, for The Secret Scripture and A Long Long Way).
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Also glossed over is his brush with Hollywood. There is no mention of Jim Sheridan’s 2017 adaptation of The Secret Scripture, starring Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave and Eric Bana. It flopped critically and commercially. Quite what Barry made of that we can only guess – the documentary does not reference it. Nor is there much about his latest novel, Old God’s Time – which he would presumably been keen to plug.
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Still, as a portrait of an artist as a family man, it is full of charm. Barry recalls writing a letter to The Irish Times in favour of the marriage-equality referendum after his then 17-year-old son, Theo, came out to his parents. Whether a conscious creative choice or not, Family Stories is ultimately less about Barry as a writer, then, than it is about him as a husband and a father.
As such it does something his rather stern novels rarely do, in imparting a warm glow. “My children don’t read my books – I’m already forgotten in a good way,” he says. “It’s good to be forgotten. To expect to be forgotten.”